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Navy admiral gets it all wrong about Kaepernick at Pearl Harbor ceremony

Military was still segregated in 1941 but black Americans still fought heroically in World War II

It’s almost as if no one is listening to Colin Kaepernick.

Despite repeated — and I mean repeated — attempts to dispel the notion that his four-month protest is about the military, Kaepernick is once again under fire, this time from a decorated military official.

On Wednesday at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry Harris told a crowd of thousands that, “You can bet that the men and women we honor today — and those who died that fateful morning 75 years ago — never took a knee and never failed to stand whenever they heard our national anthem being played.”

According to ABC News, the admiral received “nearly a minute of clapping, whistles and whoops” for his comments, interpreted as a criticism of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback.

Harris is correct, the men and women who died on Dec. 7, 1941, probably would never take a seat during the playing of the national anthem. With the threat of fascism, totalitarianism, and world domination by Adolf Hitler, all Americans stood together against the German chancellor and the rest of the Axis leaders. Whether they wanted to or not.

But what Harris — who is Japanese-American and was born 500 miles from where the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 people — and no doubt the millions of Americans who agree with him seem to forget (or not care about) is that the central message of Kaepernick’s protest isn’t with the armed forces.

But if Harris wants to open that can of worms, he can.

On June 25, 1941, just six months before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, through Executive Order 8802, prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry, stating that “the democratic way of life within the nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups.” Because this was an order in response to the threat of a mass march that same year in Washington, D.C., the order only affected the defense industry, and segregation persisted in the armed forces.

Five years later, President Harry Truman commissioned a presidential committee on civil rights in response to widespread backlash against blacks following World War I and the Great Migration (which led to the basis of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations). The panel examined the status of civil rights in America and eventually recommended the U.S. government end its discriminatory practices, including poll taxes and segregation in the federal workforce.

This led to Strom Thurmond, governor of South Carolina, and other Democrats to protest the 1948 Democratic National Convention, eventually forming the Dixiecrats. Thurmond, best known for the longest filibuster in Senate history in protest of the a civil rights bill in 1957, once said that “There are not enough troops in the Army to force Southern people to admit the Negroes into our theaters, swimming pools and homes.”

Faced with the threat of congressional filibuster, Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, effectively ending segregation in the military. The armed services, though, weren’t fully integrated until after the end of the Korean War in 1954. Despite more than 1 million black men and women serving in the military during WWII — and more than 700 of them killed — the armed forces were not desegregated until 13 years after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Despite blacks making up less than 10 percent of the military population during WWII, it’s estimated that almost 80 percent of the court-martialed executions in Europe were of black troops. Once black soldiers returned to the States, they were even subject to violence by American citizens. There are many stories of African-American servicemen being beaten and lynched simply for wearing their service uniforms, including Wilbur Little in Blakely, Georgia. And not to mention the still-unsolved mystery of the only known lynching to take place on a U.S. military base.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Dorie Miller, the first African-American to win the award, in ceremony aboard a warship at Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Dorie Miller, the first African-American to win the award, in ceremony aboard a warship at Pearl Harbor.

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As ESPN radio and television host Bomani Jones pointed out Thursday morning, there’s also the story of Doris “Dorie” Miller, a Navy mess attendant stationed aboard the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor during the day of the attack. Miller, from Waco, Texas, was barred from combat during enlistment due to government-sanctioned segregation in the armed forces at the time, and was relegated second-tier duties such as loading guns with ammunition. But by the time the Japanese torpedoes began to strike the ship on Dec. 7, Miller was firing a machine gun at enemy planes and helping other sailors to safety. He died in combat two years later, but bills introduced to award him the Medal of Honor, the highest military award, were never passed by Congress. The Navy, to this day, has said Miller does not deserve the Medal of Honor.

In recent months, Kaepernick (as he said he would) donated more than $200,000 to various organizations dedicated to equal justice and opportunity for African-Americans and people of color. In October, the 29-year-old hosted his first “Know Your Rights” camp in Oakland, California, to help teach young boys and girls about “how to protect yourself in police interactions, holistic healing and natural organic nutrition, loving yourself and the community, financial knowledge, higher education and law enforcement.” He’s kneeled for all 12 of the 49ers games this season, whether he’s started or not. He’s even gotten himself into hot water over his support of some of Fidel Castro’s accomplishments in Cuba, despite Afro-Cubans’ complex relationship with Castro and the president-elect’s cozy relationship with a different tyrant and the U.S. government’s financial backing of that same leader’s bloody drug war.

Kaepernick’s done all of this in the face of federal authorities finding rampant racial discrimination by police in Baltimore and the very city he plays for. In the past week, police officers and regular citizens have practically gotten away with the murder of black men. Within weeks of his initial protest, Kaepernick made it clear that his protest had nothing to do with the national anthem. “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up,” he told members of the media.

But it’s becoming more and more clear that no one is actually listening to Kaepernick. Well, almost no one.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"